Language selection

Read the blog /

Toxic or positive masculinity? How men can shift workplace culture

When I was visiting my home country, Lebanon, my grandfather used to say, “Son, a good man is someone who finds a respectable wife, has children, and is the main provider for the family.” My father would repeat those words to me and my brothers. My close friends have all heard it too. These words set an expectation for men to be powerful and in control. It could (and sometimes does) make men feel superior, giving way to an alpha male who asserts dominance – both at home and at work.

Given all this pressure on men to be alpha, I wasn’t surprised when I heard that society’s definition of masculinity has been detrimental to many workplaces – certain industries more so than others.

I happen to work in tech, managing engineering teams. We know how that field is extremely gender skewed – something like 3 men to 1 woman at best. I saw first-hand some of the worst behaviours in these teams. The overwhelming presence of men can create an unsafe environment for women. For example, dropping sexual or sexist references in a discussion or a chat, believing that everyone wants to join some kind of a “brotherhood” space, speaking loudly, expecting women to take notes or run the scheduling, or bluntly ignoring their coding or design contributions to a feature. I’ve even seen women disappearing in meetings because they felt unsafe. I couldn’t see the reason and I wasn’t sure what to look for, until I started to hear about and tried to unlearn “toxic masculinity”.

What is toxic masculinity?

In a nutshell, toxic masculinity involves the pressure men may feel to act in a dominant way that ends up being harmful. Toxic masculinity is on display at work when men interrupt or talk over people, take an inflexible attitude, and navigate the workplace like a battle zone to be conquered.

Research shows that men who view themselves as more masculine are less likely to engage in what researchers call “helping behaviour.” That means they are not likely to intervene when they witness bullying or when they see someone being assaulted. Intervening could be perceived as weakness. This is a serious problem. We need more helpers – not perpetuating bystanders – to make our workplaces safer and more equitable.

Why positive masculinity?

At the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), we are committed to being better helpers. Recognizing the negative impact toxic masculinity can have on the careers and wellbeing of our colleagues, we wanted to be purposeful in fostering a more healthy tech workplace.

Back in November, we invited Jeff Perera to tell us about gender, masculinity, empathy-building, and how men can help end gender-based violence. Jeff did not focus on toxicity or negativity, but instead how to embark on a journey of collaboration, learning, and unlearning. But most importantly, how to apply this learning through accountability, ownership, and building a community. By doing so, we can embody a “lesson in action” – moving from words to action. This is positive masculinity.

Asking ourselves uncomfortable questions

During Jeff’s presentation, we were grouped into small teams to answer the following 6 questions:

  1. What kind of work environment do we believe we have?
  2. What would women and gender-diverse people say about their experiences interacting with us?
  3. What do we aspire for that experience to be?
  4. What helps us “see the invisible”? How can we remove blind spots to see what others might experience?
  5. What holds men back from speaking up or helping with gender equality issues in the workplace or everyday life?
  6. What are the costs (or perceived costs) of trying to be an ally to women and gender-diverse people?

The presentation had us asking some uncomfortable questions, and we quickly realized there’s a lot of work to be done. We had to dive into the systemic toxic behaviours at play outside of the organization, to understand its effect on us inside CDS. We realized there was institutional learning and unlearning we had to do. It wouldn’t be easy and it wouldn’t be quick – but we had to start somewhere.

The presentation inspired men in our organization to create a working group to tackle what positive and mindful “manhood” can look like at work, learning how to embrace our full potential and how to “be the lesson in action” at CDS.

Starting a positive masculinity working group

We had so many insights to start working on. We first met to run a retrospective on the presentation to review the answers to the questions and come up with some action items to address them.

In that meeting, we also decided on some core principles:

  • Consult with marginalized communities to check our approach.
  • Talking isn’t enough, action is what counts.
  • Measure our progress.
  • Continuously reflect on the reality and changing needs of the organization.

In the spirit of action, we also put together a list of initiatives we are planning to start right away:

  • Identify administrative activities across the organization that should be distributed evenly.
  • Every man in the working group will request a 360 feedback from colleagues of a different gender.
  • Organize learning opportunities for men to hear about women’s experience.
  • Create a reading group to share books and resources.
  • Have a buddy system with people outside of the positive masculinity group to push each other to learn more about the topic.
  • Line up guest speakers for the organization on the topics of feminism and masculinity.
  • Create a playbook that identifies problems team members raise and provides possible ways to mitigate them.
  • Support mentorship programs like Girls Who Code and Investing in Black girls can change the world.

Learning and unlearning together

Every organization is unique but I believe there are probably common patterns we share. That means we can learn and unlearn from each other, and collectively build healthier workplaces for all genders. We’re just starting our journey, so we’re not sure if we’re doing the right things yet.

We’d love to connect to share more about our journey, or to learn from yours. Let’s keep the conversation going and become the “lesson in action.”